May 20, 2004

Who is rich?

The EconLog has a post called, “Who is rich?” which quotes from David R. Henderson and Charley Hooper as follows:

Except for the few hundred thousand who are homeless, the Americans whom the U.S. government defines as poor live exceptionally rich lives. In most ways, their lives are better than those of kings and queens just 200 years ago. Consider the quality and quantity of our food, clothing, refrigerators, televisions, washing machines, stereo systems, and automobiles. King Louis XIV of France had a greenhouse so he could eat oranges. The poor in this country can eat an orange every day, regardless of season. King Edward III of England could summon the royal musicians to play music. The poor in this country have a wide variety of music at their command, 24 hours a day, played note-perfect every time. Edward III lived in a dark, smelly, cold castle. Even the worst houses in this country are more comfortable and have electric lights, too. Care to live without showers and flush toilets? The kings of England and France had to. Next time you see a Shakespeare play in which kings and princes cavort, remember that royalty in Shakespeare's day had rotten teeth, terrible breath, and body odor that would make you keel over.

I can’t help linking to this post because, “Who is rich?” is part of a famous passage from Pirqey Avot:

איזהו חכם – הלומד מכל אדם
איזהו גיבור – הכובש את יצרו
איזהו עשיר – השמח בחלקו
איזהו מכובד – המכבד את הברייות

Eyzehu hakham – halomed mikol adam
Eyzehu gibor – hakovesh et yisro
Eyzehu `ashir – hasameah b’helko
Eyzehu m’khubad – ham’khabed et habriyot

Who is wise – one who learns from every human being
Who is a hero – one who conquers his inclinations
Who is rich – one who is happy with his lot
Who is respectable – one who respects his fellow man

We have romantic images of people living on the American frontier in the mid-1800s. Though their lives were hard, we don’t think of them as living in abject poverty. In fact, they weren’t; I am in frequent contact with people who live in what would be considered abject poverty, but in fact live very rich lives – they just have less things. On the other hand, one of the reasons why being poor in the US is so horrible is that it makes it hard to get away from people who are impoverished also in spirit.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at May 20, 2004 05:38 PM
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This too shall pass:

The temporal argument is 2 sided -- If we are "wealthier" today than the long dead royalty of Shakespeare's time, than we are also much poorer than people from the lowest rung of society 400 years hence.

Of course, both are foolish arguments.

Nobody today thinks to themselves: "Huzzah! I am wealthier than King Henry!", nor do they lament "Alas! I have less wealth than the poorest schlump to be born in the year 2404. . . woe is me.".

Quite frankly, its transparently disingenuous and foolish view: It is the nature of mankind is to relentlessly raise his standard of living, generation after generation. This has been especially true over the past 500 years. And progress is accellerating at an ever quickening pace. Consider the gains we've made this past century, and even this past decade.

Yes, we are much better off than people 400 years ago.

But, due to the accellerating pace of progress, the equivalent leap in standard of living is nonlinear -- meaning its likely to happen much faster than 400 years into the future. Our gains versus the people who lived in England in the 1600s will likely be had by inhabitant's of America in the year 2104, a mere 100 years from now. What the living standard will be like in 2404, 400 years hence, is simply inconceivable.

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz at May 22, 2004 04:05 PM Permalink

I really appreciate blogs like this one becuase it is insightful and helps me communicate with others.

Posted by: Chris Peterson at January 26, 2005 03:56 AM Permalink

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